Here in Lichen Land, the tiny but vast community of lichens, bryophytes and fungi are having a party on the Wintergreen Trail. Cladonia and Peltigera, Stereocaulon and Candelariella, Xanthoparmelia and a small crowd of their crustose friends are sporting fancy apothecia (disc or cup that produces spores) in many shapes and colors. The place is decorated in the brightest colors-turquoise, jade green, yellow, white, black, gray, brown, rust, pale blue. A Cladonia first caught my eye; she was fringed and spangled with intricate weavings of pale green, crowned with a russet apothecia/cap perched on her tall slender podetia (stalk). Many other Cladonias waved jade colored cups, some fringed and some smooth edged. The Peltigera rufescens, that not long ago sported velvety gray thallus and dramatic, hooded, vase-like apothecia, now were a bit faded in places. But some of them had grown dozens of tiny, white rhizines (root like structures) from the underside of the thallus (the vegetative part of a lichen that contains the photobiant and mycobiont.
All this elaborate activity goes on within one inch of the ground. A wrong step by a human would destroy many years of growth. But you can join the party; pack a 6x or 10x hand lens, your camera, and just walk into Lichen Site 4. They’ll all be there. Once you step down the two stone steps and turn right, slow down. Stop. Take out the hand lens. Breathe and relax. Even though it’s a party down there, we need to slow down to join up with the Tiny Ones.
Have you ever hunted for 4-leaf clovers? Use the same type of gaze and attitude; you’ll be more successful with lichens because there are so many of them, you can’t miss them. Once a few are seen on the pine needle covered ground you will start to see the stalk-like podetia everywhere. Get down close to them, use your hand lens held close to your eye, then move closer or farther from the lichen to focus, keeping the lens close to your eye.
At ground level the elaborate, fringed structures make a fairyland scene. A few weeks ago, the podetia were straight and smooth pointed stalks. Now they sport cups, caps and fringes. The thallus (the leafy part) may have rhizines, brighter color and also more elaborate shapes. There are many very tiny lichen growing among the taller ones so be careful where you step! It truly is a forest in miniature, with a canopy, mid layer and ground layer of plants and animals.
There are several types and species of lichen sharing Cladonia’s forest. Peltigera sp. has been introduced earlier, but there are many more lichen here. On the edge of the narrow pathway, rocks with lichens barely discernible in the summer now are alive with color and texture. These are crustose lichens, and there are quite a few species here. Many
species of crustose lichen on the rocks at this site have produced apothecia. Look for dark spots in the light colored crustose lichen body. Most of the lichen on these rocks are white, gray, or blue-gray. There also are some black crustose lichen here. Look closely with your hand lens to check for apothecia on the black lichen; they are hard to see. How many different species of lichen can you find? These can be very hard to identify without a high powered microscope to see details, and chemicals to test certain reactions lichens may have. At this time, the Lichen Hunters are simply recognizing these are ‘crustose’ forms.
On the low, sandy cliff (the cliff is 2-3 feet high) at the top of this area, the walls have been decorated in turquoise, green and white. The colors are bright and clear. In the shadows under the rocky overhang, the gauzy, lacy texture of lichen mixed with moss, spider webs and falling grains of sand make a confusing scene. What is lichen, and what is sand grains, or spider webs?
As the sunbeams illuminated strands of turquoise and green against the dark recesses it seemed to be an endless mass of tangled threads. Much of the lichen here is probably a Stereocaulon sp. commonly called ‘Rock Foam’. There are several species, some of which, in the arctic, are food for caribou during famine.
Pixie Foam, a miniature Stereocaulon species, often grows where there is a high concentration of metals in the rock. Lichens are used all over the world to prospect for minerals by analyzing the mineral content of the lichen thallus. (From ‘Lichens of the North Woods).
How many species of lichens can you sort out, under the sandy ledge? There are also mosses, ferns and fungi here. How many different life forms can you find, of any kind? This is a rich, active place, yet we know almost nothing about the lives here, or what their place in the world might be.
This visit to Lichen Land left me feeling as if I’d crashed a party. The last time I was here, the lichen were growing podetia but were much smaller. Today I crossed the threshold of two stone steps into their world, and it had changed dramatically. Colors were brilliant, forms were elaborate; the lichens seemed more alive! They didn’t seem like the same lichens I’d seen earlier. It was quiet, but I felt there was music and shouting and dancing going on, in a tiny way. It felt like a party.
As I walked away I thought about how the earth, rock, sand, and trees, each have a community of lichen. They are not plants, they are not animals; they are simply something else. What do they weave for the web of life in the world as we know it? Why do they cover such a large part of the earth’s land surface? There are over a hundred species of lichens on the base of the trees in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. We don’t know how many different ones are in the canopy, or the soil or on the rocks here. Everything in Nature has a place and a purpose. The Lichen Hunters are exploring what that might be for the lichens in the Kickapoo. Come on out for a walk in the woods and help us learn about the Tiny Ones.
We may be hearing a lot more in the future about mycorrhizal fungus. This site is an ongoing story about lichen, and officially, mycorrhizal fungi are not really ‘cousins’ of lichens. But cousins are often the most numerous relatives we have, so I use that term to foster awareness that the fungus Kingdom is varied and vast. Sometimes getting to know one member of a family entails getting to know other members of the family one had not planned on meeting, or even knew existed. At the party called Daily Life on Earth, meeting all the relatives is part of the fun.
I met a mycorrhizal fungus last fall, on a dead tree trunk at the end of the Wintergreen Trail. I believe it is hyphae but do not know the fungus species. If anyone reading this knows, please post your ideas! Even deceased, it was an impressive presence. Long dark threads hung from the leaning tree trunk where the dry bark had separated from the inner wood. The threads formed a complex web several feet long, dangling in the air. The strands were so strong I could not break them by hand. There was yards and yards of this fibrous material. It seemed to have covered most of the surface of the tree trunk, under the bark.
Fiber strings from under tree bark
The picture is blurry, but the very dark strings and dark bark had no noticeable detail, so the picture is close to what I saw. The extent of the fiber mass was impressive.
Why am I talking about this mat of dark threads? Because I was exploring the NASA Global Climate Change site and found a story on mapping the mycorrhizae locations in forests, by mycorrhizae species. Read the story for why NASA is doing this; it’s interesting. There are two mycorrhizal species and trees use one or the other. The forests are regulated by the signals the mycorrhizae send through the trees. They work with other plants too. Scientists think this is important enough to make maps of where each species is in the forest, in relation to the tree species, and they are doing so by satellite images. So that old adage “you can’t see the forest for the trees” is true for us in a much deeper way than we ever understood before. The trees are one part of a vast and complex web of living beings, all talking to each other and cooperating to regulate themselves and their environment. Once we lift the curtain of our preconceptions, amazing things start to show up everywhere. If we only see trees, birds and some flowers, we are missing the major part of the forest. There is far more diversity and number of living beings in and under the soil than above it, and as much metabolic function occurs on and in the ground as above. The Small Ones may be at least as interesting as the large plants and animals we easily recognize.
After reading the article and thinking again about the mycorrhizae, I wonder about the relationships between fungus that don’t make lichen and those that do; between the chemistry created by one group of trees and fungus, and the signals of moisture, temperature, nutrients and more that may be allowing or encouraging certain other living beings to take up residence nearby. We know so little about the extensive activity going on just underground. What similar actions may the lichen be doing? After bacteria, they are the original homesteaders, setting up the terrain to be hospitable to the first mosses and vascular plants. Lichen are very good at getting along with other life forms and have made a place for themselves everywhere on earth. Maybe they have something to tell us about their part in regulating the forest, beyond their original activity of creating soil and available nutrients from rock and wood and air.
So, no lichen pictures today, just questions about this green and shining world we share with unknown others.
Check this blog again soon, for information on our first KVR lichen survey route.
This gorgeous lichen was found by Julie Hoel in St. George Island State Park, off the panhandle of Florida, late this winter. It is growing in a slash pine forest, on sandy ground. Thanks Julie for sharing this.
We don’t see this lichen in the Kickapoo, but I remember similar lichen in the jack pine forests of the Wisconsin River valley when I was a child. The oak and jack pine forests from Mazomanie, Arena, Spring Green, and Lone Rock area were filled with mosses and lichens. The ground was covered and they hung on tree branches. It was a wonderland of shapes and colors. As a child I knew it was a magical place and I spent many hours there but had no way to know what I was seeing. Now those forests are mostly gone, covered with irrigated, industrial scale, sprayed crops. The lichen are in retreat and mostly absent. With them went the diversity of birds, amphibians and plants that made up that fragile and beautiful land. In those days only a child would recognize the beauty in that dry, unassuming landscape but now some of the goat prairies and grasslands are being restored, and there are remnants of sandy jack pine forests in the river valley.
Julie’s Florida lichen picture inspires me to explore some of the Wisconsin River valley forests that are left to search for my lichen and moss friends from years ago.
I’ll let you know what I find!
Cladonia evansii with its friends, the mosses
photo by Julie Hoel
Today a friend and I walked to the top of Black Hawk rock. A light snow still covered shady areas, the sun was low in the sky and gray-blue clouds scattered into the distance. There was no wind, no birds singing. A flock of turkeys walked across the ridge above us making clucky noises. As we climbed up the west side of the hill, the colors of tree trunks, fallen leaves, and rocks seemed to get brighter and brighter. Greens, blues, white, yellow. Lichens! If they could sing, they probably would be doing a hallelujah chorus today. Everything is saturated from many days of rain and light snow, and the temperatures have been above or near freezing, and nothing else is growing to block the light. The Little Ones are feeling good! The forest is full of living, growing plants in the middle of winter. They are all very tiny and all they need is moisture, light and above freezing temperatures to flourish while all other plants and most animals are dormant.
Green and blue lichen covered pieces of bark scattered on the ground from a fallen branch.
Part way up the hill a tree trunk was lined with white stripes. From smooth white layers to toothed patches this fungus (possibly Irpex lacteus) changed shape and finally supported small white fungus with purple red undersides.
Moss, liverworts and lichens crowded branches and then rocks as we climbed onto the top of the ridge.
At the top we stand on the rocky point and the whole Kickapoo valley falls away into the distance; to the east, south and west. The sun breaks through clouds illuminating the far reaches of the valley and fallow fields turned golden. Juniper and oak cling to bare rock here and the lichen cling to the trees and rock. Every living thing is attached to another living thing. Snow and lichen share the rough branches. Some of the lichen are frozen solid but close to them others are soft and flexible. The cup shaped lichen are frozen solid, the liverworts, moss and flat green lichen are not, in the picture below.
The rock at the top of the cliff feels many footsteps over time but lichen are everywhere here. Gray, yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, white; the rock looks painted with lichens. We look down across the valley and realize that much of the color we see in the landscape is the color of the lichen and mosses that are an essential part of the system of lives that make our world alive. The white and pale green colors of branches in the treetops are lichen; the yellow, gold, green and black of rock faces are lichens, and their companions the moss and liverworts.
We ended the day walking through a field of big bluestem and other prairie plants, now golden and coppery in the sun. We know tomorrow the Little Ones will be frozen and dormant under the coming snowstorm; but as soon as the sun touches them again they will come back to life.
PS: My attempts to name species is open for corrections and suggestions. We are working on learning to identify lichen (and fungi and moss) so at this time are making guesses at best. If you know what a lichen or plant is in one of these pictures, please let us know what you think.